It was difficult to know what to expect going into the Night of the Beats concert at Disney Hall on Tuesday night. In this final performance in the West Coast, Left Coast festival, the only sure thing was a celebration of the intersection of bebop and beat poetry, two wildly fertile movements that often fed off each other in the 1950s.
Offering a lineup split between the worlds of both jazz and poetry, the evening began with a curious program change that shifted the always engaging Charles Lloyd New Quartet to an opening slot.
While this left more time for a supergroup of sorts featuring Joshua Redman, Christian McBride and Alan Broadbent, who were supporting a series of spoken-word performances, Lloyd's time onstage was an all-too-brief introduction. Still, it best captured the free-wheeling spirit of the night's theme.
Things started unsteadily, as the quartet teamed with poet Michael McClure, who performed with Allen Ginsberg at his first reading of "Howl" in San Francisco.
Frequently characterized as an inspiration for Jim Morrison, the silver-maned McClure gestured dramatically to the band and the audience during a piece called "Maybe Mama Lion," but his words often struggled to find harmony with the music.
The finger-snapping stereotype of beat poetry's association with jazz has been a target of parody by generations of comedians, but McClure's second reading quickly transcended such associations.
Coalescing behind Lloyd's flute and a dry, head-bobbing groove from drummer Eric Harland, "Ghost Tantras" showed how this cross-pollination of disciplines paved the way for the jazz-informed hip-hop of Digible Planets and A Tribe Called Quest.
Yet as quickly as the band found its footing and opened up the throttle further with extended all-instrumental excursions and an introspective piece that featured a spiritually inquisitive reading by Lloyd, its time was over.
The results for the evening's later pairings were far more uneven. After the all-star band took the stage, poet David Meltzer read Ginsberg's fiery, funny "America," but the musicians' fairly conventional blues backdrop never approached the same passion as Ginsberg's words, even as it at times overshadowed them.
Exene Cervenka never seemed entirely comfortable in her readings as the band touched on period-appropriate music from Miles Davis and Sonny Rollins.
She came into her own with a martial take on "Mercedes Benz" that allowed her twangy vocal style to shine in the piece that was originally written by McClure and later popularized by Janis Joplin.
After McClure returned for a set that culminated with an unfortunately boisterous reading from the work of Morrison (always a divisive choice), the night belonged to the man who turned out to be its secret weapon: Kurt Elling.
Opening with a reverent bow toward the poets seated onstage, Elling evinced a gregarious charisma and an actor's gift for performance during energetic readings from Kerouac's "American Haikus" and Gregory Corso's "Writ on the Eve of My 32nd Birthday," which featured a lovely piano accompaniment by Broadbent.
Closing with a gleefully sneering, raspy take on William S. Burroughs' "Words of Advice for Young People," Elling's full-throated blast of humor and warmth allowed the music and words to share the stage as equals.
It was a feeling the event reached for all night but often struggled to capture.